Working as a Designer

So I thought I’d write a little bit about what it is like for me to work in the Games Industry as a Designer. This blog may be more interesting to those who are studying and/or looking to become games designers, and wants to know what it’s really like to work in the industry.

Like everything else I’ve written, this is based on personal experience. During my time as a designer, I have worked for medium-sized games studios with anywhere in the region of fifty to hundreds of employees, working on a variety of titles for publishers, and on titles which are self-published (i.e. published by the studio itself). This will of course differ to a designer’s experience who’s worked as an independent developer, those that have worked freelance, and those who have worked for larger or smaller game studios.

If you’re an experienced designer who works freelance, indie, or has a different experience of what it’s like to work for a games studio, then please share your thoughts and stories with us so those who are looking at their options when it comes to being a designer can be as informed as possible, and can choose the path that’s right for them. I’d like to write follow-up posts from guest designers who have a different perspective of what it’s like to work as a games designer, so if this is something you’d like to participate in, get in touch via twitter (@designer_vickyb), email (designervicky.games@gmail.com), or leave a comment at the bottom of this blog.

The Hours

Working as a designer is typically a full-time job (Monday to Friday). When working for a studio you will have a contracted number of hours to work each day or a number of hours you need to work per week. Typically this is around 7 to 8 hours a day.

Some studios allow their employees to work ‘flexi-time’, which means that they can start early so they can finish early, or start late so they end up finishing late. Studios that offer flexi-time often stipulate that all employees must be in the office between certain set hours (for instance, between 10am and 4pm) so that all employees are in the office at the same time for meetings, discussions, reviews, playtests, etc.

Whatever your contracted hours or shift is, it’s important that you fulfill it. Frequently turning up late or not doing enough hours will get noted by leads and upper management, and will reflect badly on you; it may even get you fired. The games industry is a very desirable and in-demand workplace, and managers want people who are reliable and trustworthy, not someone who is going to abuse the trust and privilege that comes with working on games.

Deadlines and Milestones

Deadlines and Milestones are periodic dates during development where the game is looked at and tested, often by publishers or studio and/or project leads, to check the progress of the game. These ‘milestone builds’, as they’re often called, provide a snapshot of the game at that moment, and gives the reviewer a chance to see how the game is developing, see what’s left to do, and to highlight any issues or concerns they have with the game, before it’s too late.

Producers or publishers typically set these milestones, and specify what work should be ready for each of them. This helps them plan out the work that needs to be done up to the final deadline when the game is sent off to be released, and prioritise the features that should be developed first.

These milestones are a way of proving that you’re capable of providing the work you’re tasked with on time, and to a great standard. You want to keep your producers/publishers mind at ease so they don’t panic about features not being ready on time, so you shouldn’t rest on your laurels and think “it’s ok, I’ll take care of it next time” if you know damn well that it can be done sooner.

In some cases when the work assigned to you has been excessive, there may be times when you won’t get all your work done. In situations like this, you should chat with your leads to discuss ways of better managing the workload. However, if it becomes apparent that you didn’t meet the deadline or milestone because you were slacking off, then needless to say that this would reflect badly on you, and your leads will question whether you are capable of doing the work you’ve been assigned to do.

Failure to prove that the work can be done on time or to a decent standard will run the risk of your planned feature getting stripped down or changed completely, the feature getting handed over to someone else, or the feature getting cut completely if the game can survive without it.

The Workload

For me, a designer’s workload can fluctuate wildly, and quite often unpredictably.

There may be lulls or calmer times where you can take your time on your work, help out a co-worker with their workload, assist with playtesting the game, or even brush up on your skills if your lead or managers are happy with it. During these quieter times it’s important to try and stay busy, and to make the most of this time to show that you can be trusted to work independently and self sufficiently, and not to abuse the privilege by spending an excess amount of time on social media or doing non-work-related stuff.

And then there will be times where you’re working non-stop and frantically to get your work done – probably because there’s an upcoming deadline, or the work you’re doing is needed by someone else on the team, or something has changed drastically on the project and you need to work quickly to maintain or update the feature you’re doing.

The important thing to remember is to try and be as fluid as possible, as the amount of work you will have to do will quite often vary and change quite frequently during the development of a game. Being organised can help you to cope when the pressure is on however – for example, to-do lists or an urgent-important matrix (sometimes known as the Eisenhower Matrix) are good enough tools to help to keep track of what you need to do, and to see what tasks you need to prioritize.

Is it worth it?

Being a designer is a profession that you’re continuously learning from. You are constantly trying to design and make features and levels that you want to be proud of, whilst also trying to meet the requirements and expectations of your leads and superiors, sometimes hitting the mark and at times missing the mark completely. Even being a designer for 10+ years you find yourself not getting it completely right, but you continue to learn, to try, and to understand what is required of you, and continue to learn new ways of improving your work and impressing others with your accomplishments.

So despite all this, the workload and stress, the long hours, and the repetitve cycle of deadlines, is it worth it?

Personally, yes – I believe it is worth it. But there are times when I have found myself questioning it.

When the game or update is released and out in the wild, you get a profound sense of accomplishment and pride, knowing that something you have worked so hard on is out there in the gaming wild, and is being played and (hopefully!) enjoyed by players. The times when I have doubted myself is when the workload pressure is at it’s peak, when I’m not fully convinced that what is being released is going to be enjoyed by the public, or when the project is cancelled before it is released.

But I’m quite an anxious person deep-down, and I often have arguments with myself over whether I’m a good enough designer or not. So whenever something has happened to make me doubt myself, I force myself to think back to the times when I have accomplished great things, and see what I can learn from the negative experience I may be having so I can try and prevent it from happening again.

I hope you found this blog insightful and interesting to read. It’s only one person’s perspective however, and everyone’s views and thoughts on what it’s like to be a designer is different. If you have any other questions or queries that you’d like myself or other designers to try and answer for you, then send me a message through any of the available channels.

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